by Janet Curley
The headstones were almost completely worn and illegible. Bob said we should look in the ruins of the old church and search the headstones with scissors engraved on them…the sign of a a tailor buried there. Tuesday was a beautiful day, sunny and warm as Maryann and I, with Bob, Bridie and her husband Pete, and the caretaker of the Kilmoylan Cemetery, scoured the ground looking for the headstone for John Curley – the last of my family who remained in Ireland. He had died in 1947, but even so, the stones that recent were extremely worn and difficult to read.
Bridie had corresponded with me while I planned my trip and met up with us in Abbeyknockmoy Ireland. She connected us with Bob, an eighty-something year old man who knew John Curley. “They were tailors.” He said. My heart leapt…exactly right…my great grandfather, John’s uncle, was a tailor as was his father. I felt like I was reaching across the generations as I talked with Bob who took time out of his day, as they all had, to help me locate evidence of my family.
Earlier, Maryann and I had tried to connect with the local parish priest to find records from the church, but were told he was away for 3 weeks. We would not be able to look throughout the records… If we didn’t find the headstone, I would not have much more than I came to Ireland with.
The six of us brushed away grass and sod, bent over the slabs of stone placed in the ground in the ruins of the church, but neither the name, nor the scissors were visible. Bob then decided to find Tom, another octogenarian, who created John’s headstone itself and attended the funeral. “I’ll be right back.”
There were other Curleys in the cemetery, but they were clearly not from my family. They were from a different part of the parish and the names were all wrong. This was confirmed by my search party. The caretaker told us that they had been identifying the names on the stones and will put them online within a few weeks. He didn’t recall my Curley, but was very interested in helping us find him.
Bob returned with Tom, “Tommy” to the locals. He walked up the hill swinging what looked like a thin cane. As he approached the ruins, he went directly to a stone and pointed at it with his stick. “There he is,” he said with certainty. The 6 of us cleared away the grass that covered the stone. It was still difficult to read. In fact the name was gone, but the outline of scissors were faintly visible. Tom talked about how John may not have been alone in the plot, sometimes family members would share it. It would be difficult to know who might also be there, but John most definitely was.
Tom turned to me and reached out the stick to me. Upon closer examination, I saw it was a very old yardstick. Tom handed it to me. “This was in your family. It was given to my family, survived a house fire in fact, and now you should have it.” I was speechless. I tried to protest the generosity, but he insisted that I take it. It is hard to describe how I felt holding the piece of my family’s history which was likely used by my great great grandfather in his tailor business 150 years ago. Imagine all that had to go right for this rather mundane piece of equipment to reach me. How many yardsticks has anyone kept through generations? The end of the stick had a bit if burnt wood, the slash marks showed evidence of brass which mostly had been worn away and the numbers were in an old script. It was a heavy wood, not the light pine we see in the States these days. The weight of it spoke of its utility and value.
I placed it on John’s grave and took a picture and we all posed for a picture. Then Bob and Tom led a small parade of cars down the road to an unsuspecting home owner, mowing his lawn and parked in his driveway. “This lady is looking for the place where her family lived – we’ll be just a moment.” The confused homeowner just nodded as I trod over his newly mowed lawn and approached the stone wall that marked the boundary of John’s land. His plot of land was overgrown, the house had fallen down back in the late 40s after he had died. Bob and Tom talked about John’s work with the local Franciscan monks in their monastery. “They built him that gate there across the road so he could bring his livestock over to feed on their land.” The gate still was there, an old iron gate hanging a bit askew. “He was a small man, with a thin face…couldn’t keep pence in his pocket.” Bob smiled. I must have looked puzzled. “He liked to go down to the local pub.” John had been single. He wasn’t a tailor apparently, but his father and grandfather were. He worked with the Franciscans. In fact his land was later added to the Franciscans property.
After talking a bit more, Tom and Bob shook hands with me and took their leave. I thanked Tom again for the yardstick. He shook me off. “Not a problem.” Bridie and Pete had Maryann and I over for tea where we recounted the surprises of the day and chatted about travel.
Without the generosity and time of these local folks in Abbeyknockmoy, I would have left the area empty handed. Instead, I can touch history and connect with my family 3 generations past. Thank you to everyone there and to Martin Curley who found Bridie and Pete for me.
by Janet Curley